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Adding Joy to the New Evangelization

The apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis issued on November 23, 2013, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), has been much commented on—rather, some selected paragraphs of the document seem to have been much commented on—while it is not at all clear that the entire 50,000-word message has, in fact, been all that carefully read and pondered by very many people. This is a pity, as a little more “joy in the gospel” is exactly what is needed today.

Apostolic exhortations represent a relatively new genre in the lineup of papal documents. They were adopted after the Second Vatican Council primarily in order to set forth the results and conclusions of the periodic meetings of the Synod of Bishops that was set up after the Council to assist the pope in his mission of teaching and ruling the Church. Since the eighteenth century popes have issued encyclicals as their characteristic teaching document, but given the importance of the successive Synod of Bishops assemblies, papal apostolic exhortations have assumed increased importance alongside of that of the papal encyclicals.

Francis’s first solo encyclical

This is certainly the case with Evangelii Gaudium. Pope Francis issued an encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), in July, 2013, a draft of which had been written by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. This is why Pope Francis described this encyclical as having been written by “four hands.”

The Joy of the Gospel is a much lengthier and more substantial production that refers back to the deliberations of the 2012 Synod of Bishops assembly on the subject of the New Evangelization. Pope Francis decided, though, not to base his text directly the drafts produced by the Synod. This apostolic exhortation on the Church’s evangelizing mission is thus recognizably written in the open and relatively relaxed fashion that has become so familiar since Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elevated to the chair of Peter in March 2013.

This is not to say that this formal papal teaching document is composed of or replete with the kinds of informal, off-the-cuff remarks by which Pope Francis has so often surprised and delighted so many people (and disconcerted others). It is true that a few Francis-style remarks do appear, as when the Holy Father speaks in the document of “Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter” (clearly, they are failing to realize the joy that resides in the gospel); or again, when the Pope declares that “an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral.”

For the most part, though, this apostolic exhortation contains straightforward, and at times almost staid, papal teaching and exhortation; and it is couched in a recognizable (and rather traditional) pontifical style common to documents issuing from the Holy See. Up to 95 percent or more of it consists of pretty conventional pontifical output, even while it remains recognizably the work of Pope Francis.

Moreover, it should be kept in mind that the subject matter of the work is evangelization, the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a task laid upon all Christians by Jesus himself when he commanded his apostles “to go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). And since Blessed Pope John Paul II we have had the New Evangelization, a charge to renew and revitalize the preaching and spreading of the gospel in today’s world (so badly in need of it!).

Joy to the world

What Pope Francis adds as his principal theme is that this preaching and spreading of the gospel must be carried out with the joy that should come from believing and trying to live that gospel. This pope has regularly insisted that this joy is and ought to be the natural and inevitable product of belief in Jesus and in the salvation he brings, and in this apostolic exhortation he adopts this as his principal theme.

Pope Francis declares, “In this exhortation I want to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy” (emphasis added). He aims to touch “the hearts of the faithful” (emphasis added again); they should appear, he says, “as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty, and invite others to a delicious banquet.”

Joy is the watchword of this entire document, as its title indicates. Yet this seems not to have registered with some of the readers who have produced much of the public commentary on it. This commentary has instead consisted mostly of reactions to a few short paragraphs, less than a dozen of them, touching a subject not only not usually associated with joy but rather often referred to as the “dismal science”: economics.

The Pope has been taken to task by a number of commentators as a supposed enemy of the free economy. He was even characterized as practically a “Marxist” by well-known conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who thereby raised questions about how much he really knows about Marxism, since nowhere in the pope’s words is there the slightest hint that he might favor such features of Marxism as government control of the economy, class warfare, and the like. As elsewhere, this pope consistently speaks and teaches in the context of Catholic social teaching, which certainly since John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus is accepting of and affirms the free economy.

Critic of economic practice

What does Evangelii Gaudium actually say about economics to have aroused such ire and such criticism?

• Pope Francis deplores what he calls “an economy of exclusion and inequality.”

• He rejects the idea that everything should come “under the laws of competition and survival of the fittest.”

• He cannot countenance the idea that “human beings are themselves to be considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.”

• He denies the validity of “trickle-down theories that assume that economic growth . . . will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness.”

• Finally, Pope Francis warns against what he characterizes as “the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”

What in the world could be seriously wrong or amiss with any of this? So the Pope has delivered himself of some critical remarks about the modern economy. Is he alone in doing this?

Since the financial crisis of 2008, followed in the United States by the Great Recession—which many agree has constituted the greatest threat to economic well being since the Great Depression—practically everybody has had questions about the modern economy. Pope Francis might well ask his critics what the fuss is all about as far as he is concerned. He specifically referred to today’s ongoing financial crisis, in fact, pointing out the “profound human crisis” that lies behind it, which he ascribes to “the denial of the primacy of the human person”—a theme common with both John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Many other voices have continued to speak in the same vein of the shortcomings of some of our current economic arrangements, often without ever assigning reasons for this as plausible as those cited by the pope. Meanwhile, the pope himself made plain that, while he did indeed have views not always favorable to everything resulting from today’s economic arrangements, he in no way believed that it was his task to “offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality.” He simply aimed to offer a few timely observations—which unbiased observers ought surely to agree are mostly both pertinent and plausible.

Moral criticism rankles

So what was the fuss all about? Part of the problem here surely lies in the fact that hardly anybody—certainly not today’s typical doctrinaire-free marketers—likes to be told that what he is doing might nevertheless in any way be misguided or wrong. This is especially the case if the critic is thought to lack proper credentials for the criticisms being offered.

And this kind of criticism is particularly resented today if it comes with any suggestion of what are considered “moralistic” observations or admonitions. For since “coming of age,” modern man has been freed from the constraints of any moral authority. Moralistic criticisms are accordingly wholly uncalled for and unwelcome.

Yet in this case it is none other than the pope of Rome himself offering the criticisms! Intolerable! Society has long since made clear that criticism from this source in particular cannot be countenanced. Yes, the pope may well be entitled to respect, but only so long as he refrains from trying to tell anybody what to do, particularly on a subject such as economics so obviously beyond his competence.

Pope Francis’s “mistake,” then, for not a few of our contemporaries, seems to reside in his presuming to speak out at all on a subject in which he manifestly possesses no expertise—even though practically everybody else, from left to right and back again, speaks out tirelessly on this same subject without ever incurring the kind of critical reaction given to the Pope’s remarks. But precisely because he is the pope, apparently, he must be taken to task and set straight.

Meanwhile, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, in spite of the criticisms lodged against it, takes its place as the latest installment in the very long record of papal teaching and exhortation. And in view of its length and the range of its subject matter, it is likely to occupy a significant place in the papal corpus.

Not a one-note encyclical

Far from being a document noticed mainly for its mention of “trickle-down economics,” Evangelii Gaudium actually represents quite broadly and extensively the thinking and guidance of the latest successor of Peter, Pope Francis, on a wide range of topics:

• The reform of the Church in her missionary outreach. (This, of course, is the main point of the whole document.)

• The temptations faced by pastoral workers.

• The Church understood as the entire people of God who evangelize.

• The homily and its preparation. (Pope Francis goes on at extraordinary length on this subject, which is perhaps not surprising once we understand that preaching the word properly is essential to successful evangelization)

• The inclusion of the poor in society. (This is a concern of the present pope that could scarcely have been left out of a major official teaching document of his.)

• Peace and dialogue within society.

• The spiritual motivation for the mission. (Obviously, we are not going to be able to evangelize effectively if we have not renewed our own faith and spiritual practice.)

What is still most remarkable about this latest papal teaching document, however—which pervades its treatment and discussion of all of the above topics—is the joy that it exudes, a joy in the gospel that its author has exhibited and emphasized ever since assuming the papal office. We already had the New Evangelization with the two predecessors of Pope Francis, Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. What Pope Francis has added is the component of joy that must accompany this New Evangelization.

Joy has never been absent from the Christian message, of course. On the contrary, it has always been an integral part of it. But Pope Francis has now given it a welcome new emphasis to which Catholics should respond in kind as we proclaim anew and try to live the gospel of Jesus Christ. Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel, is well and aptly named.

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